By Jeff Chadia, ESPN.com Senior Writer
Someday we will hear Eagles head coach Chip Kelly explain the thought process that went into the release of Pro Bowl wide receiver DeSean Jackson a couple weeks ago. Until then, it’s best to assume Kelly’s ego had as much to do with this as Jackson’s alleged misbehavior.
It’s reached a point where even recent comments by Eagles star running back LeSean McCoyhave created more questions about the relationship between Kelly and Jackson. About the only thing certain is Kelly will have a much harder time winning games with Jackson now playing for the Washington Redskins.
Of all the things McCoy recently told the Philadelphia Daily News — comments that included McCoy saying he was surprised by his teammate’s release — the most important admission: The Eagles have some big shoes to fill. Whatever baggage Jackson compiled with the Eagles last season, he’s still the best deep threat in pro football. The idea that a talent like that can be replaced easily is ludicrous at best. Kelly’s apparent belief that one player doesn’t dictate how successfully his fast-paced offense operates is an even sillier notion.
This is the NFL and any head coach who has won consistently will tell you that players win games. Great schemes do matter. Phenomenal preparation is paramount. But when the games kick off and the action intensifies, the teams that usually prosper have playmakers who produce on a weekly basis. This is what Jackson gave the Eagles — a dynamic presence who could hurt an opponent from anywhere on the field. Aside from the maturation of quarterback Nick Foles last season and the brilliance of McCoy, Jackson’s career year was the biggest reason Kelly’s offense flourished in the coach’s first season in Philadelphia.
When Jackson wasn’t torching opponents — he finished with 82 receptions, 1,332 yards and nine touchdowns — his speed was creating opportunities for other receivers. Even Kelly admitted that his team saw quite a bit of man coverage last year and Jackson produced huge rewards as a result.
Now we’re about to see how magical Kelly’s offense is without that sizable asset. The Eagles gave Riley Cooper, their third wide receiver, a five-year, $25 million contract earlier this offseason. They re-signed wide receiver Jeremy Maclin to a one-year deal, with the hope that they can work out a longer-term extension if he rebounds from the torn ACL that sidelined him last season. The arrival of shifty running back Darren Sproles also creates an interesting wild card for Kelly to use in the passing game, but let’s face it: We’re talking about a lot of things falling into place here.
Cooper doesn’t look like a player whose game is going to elevate to a level where that new contract is justifiable. Nobody knows how well Maclin will perform after the second torn ACL of his career (he sustained the same injury during his freshman year at Missouri). We also don’t know how Foles will fare in his second full season as a starter. Despite making the Pro Bowl in 2013, he easily could succumb to the same growing pains that plagued quarterbacks such as Washington’s Robert Griffin III, San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick and Carolina’s Cam Newton after they enjoyed success in their first years as starters.
That means Kelly will have to be on his game like never before. Give him credit for taking the Eagles to the playoffs last season and finding a way to seamlessly transition his well-publicized offense from Oregon to the NFL. It didn’t seem likely Kelly would create the same problems for defenses that he did while in the Pac-12. But that also isn’t an indication that we’re looking at the second coming of Bill Walsh.
Kelly eventually will learn that most coaches in this league have to understand which players need coddling and which ones are replaceable. Jackson clearly fell into the former category (and it says here that a dysfunctional franchise such as Washington still isn’t the best place for him to continue his career). Whatever issues he had with former Eagles head coach Andy Reid — who coached Jackson for five seasons — the belief around that franchise was Reid knew how to handle Jackson’s high-maintenance personality. Kelly, on the other hand, seems very much like a man used to enjoying his power and wielding it however he sees fit.
This is why Jackson’s split sounds less like a team being concerned about a player who is being tagged as a character problem and more like a good old-fashioned personality clash. If Kelly didn’t like a player when he was at Oregon, he likely had no problem running the kid off his team without anybody questioning him. It’s what college coaches do all the time. Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano, formerly of Rutgers, did the same thing when he clashed with and eventually pushed quarterback Josh Freeman out of Tampa last fall.
Schiano felt comfortable making that move, because he had a successor already hand-picked inMike Glennon. Kelly is taking a much bigger gamble in this situation. Even if the Eagles believe Cooper and Maclin can raise their production to levels they’ve never reached — neither player has surpassed the 1,000-yard mark in receiving in a season — it’s a safe bet Philadelphia will be looking for a wide receiver in the draft, as well. The good news is receiver is one of the deepest positions in this draft. The bad news is most wideouts need two to three years before they make any real impact.
This is the situation that Kelly created for himself and it’s doubtful he’s sweating it right now. He’s so arrogant that he’s felt no need to talk publicly about Jackson’s release. He also has enough leverage from last year’s success that he might feel his decisions need no defense. This is another by-product of leading a collegiate powerhouse. The best coaches always feel an immense sense of control over their environments.
If that is indeed what is going on here, then Kelly had better enjoy the moment as long as possible. Things can change fast in the NFL, especially for coaches who think their team’s success is tied entirely to their IQs. Kelly had the power to win a clash with a superstar after only one season in the NFL. Now comes the harder part: proving that wasn’t the first major mistake of his professional coaching career.